The Road is Always Long

My journey through the world of ultra marathons.

Croatian Aftermath

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It’s taken a few weeks to come to terms with what happened in Croatia.  After the race I reached a level of disappointment that I have never experienced.  I don’t think I have ever put as much effort into a single event my entire life. To make errors at this level, for me, was inexcusable.  It was about a week later when I understood that I had made mistakes.  The realisation brought a certain amount of relief but also further anguish.

At the time, when things started to unfold for me, massive thoughts of self-worth flooded my head.  Negative judgement came way too easy:

“You’re just not good enough to be here”

“You have blown this by setting off way above your ability”

“You’ve had your chance and you have destroyed it”

I couldn’t shake these feelings, but it was important to put them aside.  I was there as part of a team and some of those team members had a race to remember.  Of course, the omni present Mrs T saw just how raw I was, she saw how close I was to falling, deeply, into a pit. The self-pity party was in full swing and I was the host!

I’ve always been inquisitive, curious and eager to find out how things work.  As a coder and data analyst I’m often working out why things don’t work. Testing, reconciling. Or I’m looking for patterns and trends in information.  Arranging large amounts of data into something that is understandable. These are tasks I do daily.  I had to work out what went wrong.

If we rewind a little I could go into great detail about the whole event.  I’m not going to do that in this blog, but I might in the future.  Despite the problems I faced during the race, everything was wonderful.  The organisation, the location, the people, my team mates, even the undulating course.  It really was a weekend I will never forget.

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The course was an undulating 2.5k first loop then 13 7.5k loops. Support stalls for each country were just before the start/finish line and at the loop half way point.  The race was going well and to plan for the first 60km. I was aiming for a time around 6:50-6:55 and I was running slightly quicker than that, but comfortable with the pace and effort. I was taking on gels and hydration as per my pre-defined plan. I was running with a group that dwindled over the duration, but we kept each other going in those early laps.

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Mrs T helping out in the support area. Thanks to Jo Zakrzewski for the photo.

At around 65k I felt a deadening in the legs.  Something I’d never felt before, it was like a car going instantly from high octane petrol to diesel. My initial thought was, ok, that’s the tiredness coming on, I can handle that, but within 10k, I was stopped by the side of the road in agony as I couldn’t purge my legs of cramps.  It was everywhere, quads, hamstrings, calves and inside thigh.  Those last ones are very painful as you must allow them to subside themselves, no stretch helps.  Stopping became more frequent in those last 30kms, cramp would cripple me then subside and I did all I could to keep going to the end. I’d lost 25 minutes in those last 4 laps and finished 30th in 7:18, my slowest 100km. I was devasted. I was in the shape of my life and I hadn’t been able to prove it.

The rest of the team had differing results, Ant Clark ran a stunning race to finish in the top 10 and made the top 10 in the UK all-time list, truly phenomenal performance.  Sam Amend making the top 15 despite not having her best race, Carla and Sue had similar races to me for different reasons.  If you come into 100km racing with a slight injury it will show itself at some point in the race and Lee, unfortunately experienced that and had to drop out as well as his luggage (including all his race nutrition) not making it to Croatia with him!! It all stacked up against him.  The support team of Adrian, Jo, John and Mrs T were superb during the race.  Jo gets a special mention for her efforts as she traded with people from other countries to acquire race nutrition for Lee.  The whole weekend was wonderful despite my failure in the race.

But what happened?

I took some time to analyse the available data.  It raised 4 questions:

  1. Did I set off too fast for my ability?
  2. Have I raced too much this year?
  3. Was Comrades too close to this race?
  4. Did I get my food and hydration strategy right?

Did I set off too fast?

That doesn’t appear to be the case, effort was less or similar to effort at the ACP in March. The increased pace from ACP pace would correlate with an increase in fitness level which I knew had happened.  I checked my heart rate regularly to make sure I was staying well under threshold and that the heat and humidity were not affecting my effort.  They didn’t appear to be.  My pace was quicker than the ACP, but my heart rate was on a par, actually a little lower at the same distances up to when things went wrong.  I was lighter (4kgs lighter), paces were better, I felt awesome before going out to Croatia.  So, I don’t think I overcooked it even though the pace was quicker than initially planned.  I was on for 6:50-6:55 pace before falling off a cliff!

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ACP – Wales – March 2018

 

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World Championships – Croatia – 2018

The salient points are:

  1. The early effort, up to about 60k was slightly lower than ACP in March.
  2. The early pace was way higher than at ACP, showing my fitness level.
  3. This was not caused by fitness levels.

 


Have I raced too much this year?

This probably is something not tangible, it can’t be measured.  I’ve had 2 fairly long races since the ACP; a massive one in Comrades and a small 50k, where even though it was a training run, I did push it harder than I should have, both requiring some time for taper and recovery.   Maybe my racing had an effect, that will always be hard to tell unless I go for a year with one or two races and everything else stays the same.  This is the most amount of racing I have done in a year, ever.  Maybe the additional racing has had a knock-on effect.  Something to take into the future.

Jan – Gloucester Marathon – Comrades Qualifier, run hard, not flat out.

Mar – Anglo Celtic Plate – Left nothing out there, took 6 weeks to recover properly from this race.

Jun – Comrades – Picked up injury, still completed the 90km race. 5-6 weeks to recover properly.

July – Run the Blades 50k – Ran hard, not flat out.

Sep – World 100km Championships.

 


Was Comrades too close to this race?

I haven’t been able to do any scientific stats on this, but almost every person who had doubled up in Comrades and the Worlds had a shocker.  There was “Comrades Carnage” everywhere.   Was it too close for a lot of athletes, including me?  Probably.

 


Did I get my food and hydration strategy right?

Hydration, did I get this right? My plan was to start taking on gels at 10k and then each lap alternating gels with Active Root and any other fluids I might want.  Taking on fluid every 2 laps (15km) in this heat was, on hindsight, not the best approach.  I should have been taking in fluid at the very least every lap (7.5k).   I chose a strategy that I now think to have been completely wrong.

I should have taken a gel at the lap half way point and fluid at the end of each lap FROM THE START.  Probably more as the race went on.  I got this completely wrong. I know that now and that was my fault.  It was questioned by my wife and by the support team prior to the race starting but I thought I was correct, I thought it would be enough.  I had 2 toilet stops in the first few laps and didn’t want any more stops, so refused more water/fluids earlier in the race.  A few more pee stops would have been preferable than what happened in the last 4 laps!!!

You can have the best sports performance products in the world but if you don’t utilise them properly, you can’t expect to perform at your best.

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The result of this scrutiny is that maybe I’ve raced a little too much this year, but I have recovered.  Maybe Comrades was too close, and it took a little edge off my World Championship performance.  By far the biggest weighted problem was fluid/salt intake and lack of food in those early laps.  Once you are in a deficit like that, it is impossible to recover.


Outcome

The positive aspect to this is that I can take this knowledge into my next challenge and ensure that there is no repeat.  Should I be lucky enough to gain a selection for Scotland or GB in the future, or any ultra for that matter, there will be no repeat of what happened in Croatia.

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I’ve been very lucky to have been invited out to a race in China in a few weeks time.  It is not a target race, I don’t expect any outstanding performance, but it is a lovely way to end my racing season.  A season that I can only describe as the running year of my life.

Wilde About Croatia

“There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

Oscar Wilde had some marvellous quotations, this is one of my favourites.   I sometimes  wonder if people question my commitment to this sport.  Are the sacrifices that my family and I have had to make being judged and that often leads me to thinking and judging myself for what a selfish sport ultrarunning can be.  I’ve been very lucky that people are, at least, writing about me, if not talking!  The articles have a few inaccuracies in them, but I am honoured to be back page news in the local (East Lothian Courier) and old local (Lanark Gazette) newspapers.

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East Lothian Courier

 

Wilde also said, “Moderation is a fatal thing.  Nothing succeeds like excess”.  I’ve done a lot of things to excess in my life, many, if not most have been harmful and perhaps some would say running to excess is also harmful.  It is the process of training and racing and all that goes with it that makes me truly happy, from a sporting perspective, and for that I provide no apology.

The penultimate Oscar Wilde quote for this blog will be, “Experience is one thing you can’t get for nothing”.

This blog is about running, in particular my experiences through ultra-running.  Be that on the trails, roads or mountains.  Each training run, mobility or strength session and every race brings an experience.  Each experience doesn’t have to be some enlightened moment, a wondrous event or even a good experience for it to be meaningful or provide knowledge or learning.  I have absolutely sunk myself into training this year, more than I have ever done in the past.  That includes nutrition, mind-set, mobility, strength work, supplementation and sleep.  These have not been carried out in moderation, almost every single day I have committed 100% of the time I allocate to training, to training.  This has slipped over into family and business time on occasion, and I have no idea the last time I had a night out, but I’ve had a lifetime of nights out.  I have learned a lot, more so in these last 12 months that I have in the last 12 years.

This time next week I’ll be in Croatia getting ready for the race of my life.  I’ve had many podium places locally and nationally, but the world 100km championships is a world class athletics event and I have no delusions or pre-conceived ideas of my abilities.  I am there as a GB team member and I will run my heart out for the team, for my family and for myself.  If I get to the 100km mark and know that I have given everything I possibly can, then it will be a successful event.

“Success is a science; if you have the conditions, you get the result” – Oscar Wilde

See you on the other side!

 

Countdown to Croatia

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It’s no secret (I’ve blawed about it often enough) that I’ll be donning the red white and blue vest (and short, t-shirt, track suit, waterproofs, long shorts, polo shirt…..) of Great Britain in a little over 6 weeks time.  When I was a young teenager I took up athletics as I was alright at it and I was garbage at football.  Well actually, I made the senior team at high school as a 4th year (the only 4th year to do so despite there being at least another 11 lads far better than me) but that was more based on my running speed than silky skills with the ball.  Steve Cram had only been on the track scene for a couple of years, but was already taking down Coe and Ovett and that was it, he was my new idol. Quiet, fast and head to toe in Nike! What was not to idolise!!! And it was the 800m/1500m that I would try my luck at.  I was quick, but not the quickest over 100m or 200m, but when it got to 400m and above I was starting to hold my own.  I had some success over 800m (sub 2 minutes), 1500m (close to 4 minutes) and picked up a number of national, schools and county medals over the 2 or so years that I was training.  Like every kid I had dreams of GB representation, going to big events, and living the life of an athlete.  As a 17 year old boy a day is a lifetime and one day I was the athlete, the next I was getting involved in all manner of activities and behaviours that are not good for the body or soul.  That would last 15 years and my teenage dreams of pulling on a GB track suit faded like my substance lazed memories!!

Fast forward nearly 30 years, yes reader (I know there is at least one, thanks Mum), three zero years, and I don’t have the creativity in vocabulary to describe to you how monumental it feels to have been selected for the Great Britain team for the up coming World 100km Championships in Croatia.  Andy Milroy (author of the late Don Ritchie’s biography – The Stubborn Scotsman) calls the 100km ‘the blue ribband’ of the road ultras.   I don’t know if I agree with that statement, but I like it 😊.  This isn’t an event for “has beens” either, I am joined by England Commonwealth games marathon and Comrades podium runner Steve Way, Lee Grantham, former UK 100km champion (I stole that crown this year 😊 ) both of whom have sub 2:20 marathon PB’s.  And Anthony Clark, my friend and closest rival over some recent Anglo Celtic Plate 100kms.  In world standings we are half decent team.  The selection committee must satisfy themselves that any team put forward should be in with a chance of a world championship medal.  At the very least the selection committee believe in us.

I tried looking at the thesaurus for a word that amplifies the word excited, but I couldn’t pick one (answers on a postcard please). Since I got the call, I’ve been living the monastic life….again….which is harder than the training itself.  Training is fantastic, I love it, I love completing a hard session and quietly, to myself, saying, ‘you nailed that’.  Finishing a, not so easy, 50k race under coach @pyllon guidelines as to how to run it (i.e. DO NOT RACE THIS) and thinking, again quietly to myself, ‘you could have ran that much harder’.  That was the Run the Blades 50k event last Saturday (21st July).  What an event, superbly organised and a tough wee off road route around the Whiteless Wind Farm just outside Eaglesham.  Go do this race, it is brilliant.

Photo by Sandra Hunter

Photo by Sandra Hunter

Living like a monk is the hard bit that I really have to concentrate on it.  It is easy to pick up that chocolate bar, packet of crisps, (put your vice in here), they are ubiquitous, every shop, workplace, friend’s homes.  Booze is another vice, I love a beer, but this year I have really gotten into zero alcohol beers.  I seem to know more about these beers than I do the ones I would drink normally!! The great thing about the zero beers is that I can only ever drink one or two and then I go off the taste.  They don’t contain those chemicals that switch off my ‘only one or two’ switch.  The best one, in my opinion, is Warsteiner.

Y-U-M.  I think this one is the closest to the real thing.

Over eating in particular is a problem for me, particularly at the weekends.  There is probably a connection there with no work, relaxation, no real routine, but I can eat most people under the table!  A few years ago I started using an app Chronometer.  Mostly as I wanted to attempt to track the nutrients and vitamins I was getting from the food I was eating rather than anything else.  It was great at the time as I could see that I needed to supplement with iron and calcium as I was not getting enough from food.  Of course these things are never 100% accurate, I’m not going to get all evangelical about the app, but this time as well as looking after my nutrient status I’ve started taking note of my consumption levels and then writing down how I feel each day. I note physical things like fullness, general energy levels, sleep quality, training quality, levels of pain, levels of sluggishness when training, concentration levels and hunger levels.  An added benefit is weight loss.  I’ve dropped to just over 60kgs without trying and, more importantly, without compromise.  I also note mental aspects, among them mood.  The list goes on.  It’s allowing me to understand how I function as a human more clearly.   Will I continue to do it after the World Champs, I am not sure, it can be time consuming, but it’s all about marginal gains now.  I am not suddenly going to run 6:30 for 100k, but if monitoring my body like this gives me a 1% gain over my ACP time, then I’ll run 6:55 and this could be the difference between a medal or not.  It’s a small price to pay.

Six weeks tomorrow I will toe the line with the best 100k runners in the world.  I might never get the chance to do this again, I plan to be in the best shape of my life.

World 100km Championships Home Page

The Road to Durban – The Epilogue

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Where do I start? At the end is an ideal place to kick this off.  I cried. For the first time in finishing a race, a few real tears rolled down my cheeks when Mrs T finally found me. I was overwhelmed by emotions that, at the time, I didn’t understand. Thinking about it now, they were from both sadness and joy.  This race got to work on me from the beginning and discarded me like a piece of used gum.

Despite Emirates business class travel, I slept for a total of a minute on the way over, in fact in the 3 nights before the race, I had a total of one night’s sleep.  That is no excuse, more of a note to self to travel out earlier to a race this far from home!  The 1:30am rise out of bed to catch a bus to the start didn’t phase me, I hadn’t been asleep, but I selected the only bus that had been transported from 1950’s Bangalore.  Maybe sleep is important after all.  We were the second bus to set off, but about the 30th to arrive in Pietermaritzburg.  It was cold at 3am, the 3 quid shit catchers (grey joggers) and 4 quid t-shirt form Primark were partially doing their job.  There were still people in single use black bin bags around the start area, I hope these will become a thing of the past on the race start lines.  My own discarded clothes would at least be used again by those who need clothes in SA.

Time went quickly before the start.  I chatted to a few other guys and I was given some good advice by an English guy who could clearly spot my Comrades virginity.  Before I knew it ‘that’ tune from Chariots of Fire was being blasted out the PA system, then Shosholoza, the cockerel calls, then the gun (click here for a wee video of the start).  It was 5:30am. This was it. 7 months of meticulous preparation by my coach Paul Giblin (@pyllon) and I was in fantastic shape.  Having put down a 7 hour 100km earlier in the year, I was confident that I could run quick at Comrades.  The last 6 miles of the 100km were my slowest and I knew what I was capable of over a race that was 10k shorter.  I set off around 4 minutes a km.  This was a few seconds per km too quick, but I remembered thinking the same at the Anglo Celtic Plate and so take a quick look at heart rate and it was in a similar place, so I knew pace was good at this stage of the race.  I monitor heart rate for the first wee while just to make sure I am not overcooking it.  That became difficult on the big climbs, but I tried to wait until the ground levelled out to look again, but it never did, and I just went with feel.

Don’t be fooled by the term ‘Up Run’ or ‘Down Run’ when Comrades is being described. Net down or net up is probably a better description and either way this is a brutal course.  For example, the down run has half a dozen long slow climbs with some short sharp downhills, then there is the final 20k downhill after running 70k.  There are still some sharp and longer uphill sections in that last half marathon. It’s not a pancake flat route, quite the opposite, for a road race.

We leave Pietermaritzburg and join the northbound carriageway of a 4 lane motorway.  It is still pitch black and the only lights are those of the vehicles going in the opposite direction.  The motorway is completely closed for the race as are all the roads of the race. The only noise I can hear are the impact of running shoes on the asphalt.

I won’t describe each section of the race, other than to say that I hadn’t quite understood the amount of climbing involved in that first half of the race, or the pain in the quads I would incur on the last 20k downhill. Anyone contemplating a Comrades finish would be well advised to work on these in their training.

I had no idea of my position in the race at any point, there are simply too many people.  Steve Way was unaware his own position and the man ended up on the podium!!  It was unimportant, I was here to run a time, to soak up the experience and put those months of hard training to the test.

After a particular climb, I turn a righthand corner with a few other guys around me and I can here a familiar voice shouting on me.  Confused, I look across to my left and there was Mrs T in the middle of the road with my first instalment of Active Root and Honey Stinger gels.

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Phew, if she hadn’t seen me, I would have missed this checkpoint!  Consports were an SA based company who were offering a couple of packages for the runners and supporters. For runners, there were 3 checkpoints where you could pick up you own sustenance.  For the support there was a champagne breakfast and a lunchtime Braai (BBQ)!!!  They were very good and I would suggest to anyone coming to Comrades to give them some consideration if you don’t want to rely on the provided energy drinks and food.

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Around 40km into the race, I felt a little twinge in my right foot. It was like I had stood on a sharp stone on the ball of my foot.  I ignored it, thinking that is what must have happened and it would subside, but these roads are clear of debris.  Around marathon distance I picked up some more Active Root and Honey Stingers at the second Consports checkpoint.  At 50k I was still running strong, I remember looking at my watch here and seeing 3:24.  I was running well and on target and we had almost completed all the major climbs of the race.  That “stood on a stone pain” hadn’t subsided and ignoring it became increasingly more difficult.  A couple of kms later I felt and heard a pop in my foot and I was running with a limp.  I stopped for a pit stop and had ideas of taking my shoe off to see if there was something stuck in the shoe.   I knew there was nothing in my shoe, my thoughts turned to utter disappointment and feelings of anguish flooded me.

Feelings of jumping into a bailer bus lasted a millisecond.  This wasn’t a bad patch that I would overcome eventually, this was an injury, this was an injury that was going to end any time goals that I had, this was an injury that wasn’t going to stop me finishing. No way Jose!  I could still move forward, thoughts flitted between people I know who’ve gone through similar tough times in races recently and my own previous form when picking up an injury in a race (I’ve bailed).  I was not going to stop.  Too much time, money, training, effort and emotion had been invested in this race.  This is the game of chance we all play.  I had unfortunately drawn the go to jail card, but I wasn’t out of the race.

At 64km there was another Consports checkpoint and I was walking as I approached.  The look on MR T’s face said it all.  She was conveying exactly how I felt inside.  She asked if I wanted to pull out and got an immediate and flat NO in return.  I took more Active Root but I didn’t want any more gels.  My body was now not burning through the calories and the thought of any more semi solid food made me gag.

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The last 26-28k were torturous with frequent walking breaks from the hobble that I could manage.  I worked out that if I could run on my heels and avoid too much toe off the pain was bearable, but a return to any half decent pace was out of the question.

I’ll say at this point I’ve never experienced anything like the crowds.  For almost the full 90kms there were people lining the route.  From whole families out in their pyjamas at 5:30am in Pietermaritzburg to whole schools, dressed in full uniform creating a tunnel of noise, to groups of friends sparking up their Braai and drinking beer.  It was friendly, fun and fantastic.  At the end of the race I didn’t feel that this race was anything ‘special’, I suspect my thoughts were being ambushed by emotions.  On reflection, and now that the rawness of that emotion has passed, I can honestly say this is a special race.

The old finish is a stone through away from our hotel, the new finish being about 2-3kms along a main road in the city of Durban.  I run past my hotel and wish I was in there, I wished that there had be no change to the finish and I had no more kms to run (I might have broken 7 hours too LOL).  But I had another 2kms to run and I must finish.

IMG_8133As I approached the Moses Mabhida stadium I was in excruciating pain, I was now very worried about the damage to my foot.  Thoughts of stress fractures, broken metatarsals filled my head.  The crowds lined the road kept me going. The noise as I approached the entrance was deafening, people were hanging over the railings to high five you, the stadium was nearly full and I had 200m to the end.  I made it!  A few minutes over 7 hours.  Nearly a full hour slower than my original game plan, but I was at the end and I had a silver medal around my neck.   I had kicked the white towel out of the ring at round 7 and I’d boxed on to the end of the 12th round.  Yes, I’d lost on points, but I was still standing.

I was disappointed, upset, saddened by how the race turned out and at the same time proud that I could muster the resolve, tenacity or plain doggedness to finish in abject and dismal circumstances.  What I’ve taken away from this race is far more than I could ever have expected had the race gone to plan.  I’ll be able to take this experience into each and every race in the future and that is what I am thankful for.

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As always, my rock, my support, my best friend and my wife, Mrs T was there experiencing this with me and my two girls were always in my thoughts.  During the race I was tormented with thoughts of having to tell my eldest I’d pulled out of the race.  The trepidation and anxiety of that was a major driver.

There is so so much more to tell, so many thoughts that I could spill out of this head, some great, some not so great.  The post race scenario, feeling lost, medical, argh, but I am going to leave it here.  Maybe another time.

 

I’ve now been asked a thousand times if I will go back and do the ‘Up Run’ next year.  You get one chance to get a back to back medal.  South Africa is a really long way.  There were a lot of sacrifices made by me and  my family and a lot of people not mentioned on here helped out with childcare and logistics.  I would love to go back, I have a ghost to settle in South Africa, but I am not sure I can ask nor expect these sacrifices again.  We’ll see….

The Road to Durban – Part IV (Almost There)

IMG_5403If a crow could fly direct, it would by over 6000 miles to Durban from Edinburgh.  This will be double the distance I have ever travelled for a race.  New York in 2007, when Lance Armstrong beat me by 20 seconds (and his film crew almost killed me), is just a tad over 3000 miles from Auld Reekie.

Sunday, will see me toe the start line with 22,000 ultra marathoners for, what is arguably, the biggest contest in human endurance on the planet.  Volume of runners is mind boggling and I wonder what it will feel like.  Any other mass participation road race? The last road ultra I ran had 22 people in it!!  Luckily I am in the A pen, which is at the head of the race, but in the back of my mind is a podcast I listened to where Patrick Reagan is interviewed.  Patrick is a US elite ultra marathoner, he finished 12th last year at Comrades.  He told the interviewer that he was in 500th position after the first 5K and was worried that he hadn’t set off quick enough.  This really is a race of attrition versus controlled effort.  It is not last man standing.  Control will be key and I need to ‘keep the heid’ in those early kms. Negative split is the only way to run this race.  A wise old owl recently told me this: “Start the race at a pace above your ability will certainly ensure that you finish the race less than your ability”.

The next concern is the amount of down in this ‘Down Run’. Multiple descents of Arthur’s Seat doesn’t come close and I am going to have to control the descents by relaxing into them as much as I can.  Let gravity and my biomechanics do the work and try not to force anything.

Weather could be the next concern, but there is nothing I can control here.  This will be what it is and I should adjust my efforts and pace accordingly.  I have prepared in Scotland as much as I can with regular sauna sessions post run and even some gym treadmill workouts then diving straight into the 90 degree Celsius sauna (that was brutal by the way).

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Recovery from ACP took a little longer than I wanted and it impacted the training ‘the boss man’ @pyllon programmed for me in terms of effort at specific paces, but the effort was there and that was the main goal.  Things started to turn around in these last few weeks and now I feel ready physically.  A few kgs lighter, diet dialled tighter, only missed one session in 10 weeks due to illness and injury free.

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I can’t ask any more of this aging but able body.  I’ve continued to work hard on mobility, flexibility and strength and now realise that this is key for the older athlete.  If you are 40+ and not doing anything to improve mobility and strength, and are not a genetic freak, then you are heading for the injury bench.  I have all the T-shirts and if I had to dwell on regrets, that would be one thing I wish I had started 10 years ago.  Nothing is certain, of course.

Onto Durban tomorrow, via Glasgow and Dubai.  We leave the house at 17:15 tomorrow afternoon and we’ll arrive in Durban around 16:30 local time on Friday!  Phew, it’s going to be a long journey!

See you all on the other side.

The Road to Durban – Part III (Return to ACP)

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The next step on this journey to Comrades Ultra Marathon (Comrades) was the small matter of a call up to the Scotland 100km team that would compete in the annual Anglo Celtic Plate incorporating the British 100km Championships.  I was part of a strong Scotland team including last year’s Scottish 100km Champion David McLure, 2017 West Highland Way 3rd place, Dave Ward and former Barry 40 winner Grant Jeans.  We were a good team, but we would need to perform well to bring the ACP back to Scotland.  England had brought another solid team with UK 100km silver medalist Anthony Clark, Jez Bragg, who needs no introduction, stalwart Nathan Montague and newbie Michael Stocks who was runner up in a solid time at the Gloucester 50k in January.  The Welsh team were missing a couple of their key strong members but managed to still bring a good team to the party.

Redwick was the small village in South East Wales where the race would take place. A roughly 2 mile loop of country roads that we would run 31 times (plus a little extra) to complete the 100 kilometres.  When we arrived at 7:30am there was no curtains open, clearly the thought of a major UK athletics event happening on some people’s doorsteps, made no difference to this sleepy village. However, I do remember that when the village pub opened at 11am the hamlet suddenly woke up!!

Team chief, Adrian (@tarittweets) was busy organising and setting up the day as we loafed around waiting for the start of a long hard day.  The mood was sombre, maybe Dave’s laid back nature was rubbing off on us.  I was nowhere near as nervous or worried as I was in Perth in 2016, an old hat maybe.

Team photos, support table set up and we were stripped and heading for the start line, some 500-600m clockwise back up the race route.  It was very cold, many had arm warmers on, all had gloves and most had headwear of some description.  There was also a fairly stiff northerly wind that only added to the chill factor. We said our good lucks to each other and then I focused on the task.  The gun fires and we start running, that first hue exhale of breath makes a large cloud of condensation in the air as Ant, Jez and Mike race off into the lead.  They have a twenty second lead by the time we re-enter the village and cross the lap/finish line for the first time.  Mike eases off from the leaders and I move away from Grant and David to join him.  We run together for some of the first lap when we see Jez popping out of the bushes and joins us.  It is clear that Ant is out to run hard and I make an effort to make up the gap to join him.  At this point I am not sure if I have done the right thing. Pace was slower than I wanted, but the race had only started.  By the end of the first lap Ant and I were running more or less together.  Ant it pushing the pace, I decide to ease off and get back to a pace I feel comfortable at, then Ant jumps into the bushes and I take the lead in the race for the next few laps.  I create a gap, but it is short lived as I make my one and only toilet stop and Ant catches me not long after that.  Marathon distance comes up at roughly 2:53 and we go through 50k together in 3:26.  This is hard running and Ant again pushes hard again and opens up a gap.  I let this one go as we are approaching the business end of the race and I am started to feel that familiar low level all over pain starting to climb. If it gets to a point where mobility is affected then my race is over. It was time to ease off.

Photos courtesy of Robert Gale.

A good break in the race report to give my thanks to the support.  Mrs T was my support for the race and she performed like a professional.  I got exactly what I needed on each lap and she made sure I was ok every single time.  There is no doubt that having her there made a huge difference to my race. Even now, after 18 years together, I want to impress her like a love struck teenager.  David and Dave had also brought their partners down as support and they all had a fantastic day, despite the cold weather.  Also, but not surprisingly, the support from the other team’s support crews was fantastic, encouraging on each lap. Norman, at one point, when Ant had opened up a gap of around 2 minutes, said to me that the race doesn’t start until 80k, and to take it easy and keep him in my sights.

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I went through 50 miles in 5:32, the early pace was starting to work its way into every tendon and muscle in my legs and I could feel the inevitable slow coming on.  It was now time to dig, no it was time to excavate deep into the resources to maintain pace and form.  This last 12 miles were going to hurt, I accepted that and started to push.

Photos courtesy of Robert Gale.

An apt time to bring up nutrition.  The only gels I can stomach are Honey Stinger (@honeystinger) and after some monumental mistakes in training I had settled on a plan. When I took a gel (roughly every 3-4 laps) I would take a full lap of 2 miles to consume it, taking pea size blobs every now and again until it was finished.  It meant that there was never a huge drop of sugar into my stomach in an attempt to avoid any stomach issues.  It worked.  Hydration was Active Root (@active_root), who I am now a brand ambassador for, and again I would take sips on the way round a full lap.  Again, this worked perfectly.  Only once did I refuse taking on any nutrition when I thought my stomach felt a little full.  This approach worked a treat.  When I started to feel a little cramp coming on, I added apple cider vinegar (or pickle juice) to my drink and again this seemed to keep cramp at bay until the final few laps.  There was also flat coke in those final laps where the largest amount of sugar you can get quickly is required.  I can’t fault my nutrition this time and I think I have found the right combination of gels and hydration, at least for me I have.  At no point did I feel that I couldn’t take any more of the Active Root on, it is such a great taste, refreshing and thirst quenching, every time.

As I crossed the lap/finish line Mick McGeogh (look this guy up, a quality runner in his day) announced the time difference between Ant and I.  The first time I took notice of this was when it was 1 minute 47 seconds.  At this point I wasn’t sure that I would have enough laps left to catch him, especially if he was still pushing the pace.  It was time to switch goal. To target goal B. Looking at my watch and attempting to work out the basic arithmetic, I had a chance of running under 7 hours.  Let’s be honest here though.  Under normal circumstances that arithmetic would be at Carol Vorderman speed, however after 5 and a half hours of hard running that speed gets slowed to the point where I have to resort to using fingers!  I come through the lap/finish line again and Adrian and Mrs T tell me the time difference has dropped to 1 minute 30 seconds.

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Photo courtesy of Robert Gale

Adrian (@tarittweets) is the essence of ultra running. What Adrian doesn’t know about this sport is simple not worth knowing.  His faith in me when taking a punt in 2016 and again this year after a long term injury is something I will be eternally grateful for.  He has given me chances where I suspect others may not have.  He is the best in the business and I can’t thank him enough for the opportunities he has given me.

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I try to maintain the pace but as soon as I increase effort, cramp starts to appear on my left hamstring.  I’d felt this for some laps maybe 5 or 6, a little tightness here, subside, tightness again, then subside.  I had maintained a pace that was keeping the cramp at bay, but any increase in pace, any change in running form was triggering it.  More apple cider vinegar as I go through the support area, encouragement coming from everyone, Mick announces the time gap is 40 seconds. There are 3 laps to go.  As I move onto the first straight of the lap I see Ant. I haven’t seen him for a few laps.  We get to the hairpin bend after battling into the wind for the 29th time and I can see he has slowed.  I overtake Ant, shouting encouragement for him to stick with me.  We had spent most of the day together, pushing each other, jostling for the lead, I wanted him to finish strong.  But I open up space between us as I maintain pace.  As I approach the support area I don’t take on any hydration, Adrian shouts at me to go for the 7 hours and I dig deeper into the reserves again.  Penultimate lap.  The only real point to see your pursuer is at that hairpin bend and when I round it I can see Ant about a minute adrift of me and my mind turns to winning the race.  My Garmin had gone all funky with the laps and it looked like the sub 7 was off the cards, but the ‘A’ goal was back in play. Win.  Everything hurts so much now, every step is agony, my shoulders are hurting, my back hurts, my legs and feet are trashed.  I cross the lap line, again to massive cheers and encouragement, I swear there was a thousand people there.  I try to keep pace, keep form, keep my head and as I battle through the wind my effort level rises sharply for the last time, or so I thought.  I can’t describe the feeling of relief I had, knowing that I did not have to run that section of the loop again.  The biting northerly wind in full force in your face for almost half a lap.  I round the hairpin for the last time and do the now habitual glance back. And there was Ant. Probably around 20 seconds behind me, he was flying, I could see he was flying, directly into the wind.  I took a massive breath in and started to run, run hard. My breathing spiked immediately, I forgot all about the cramps, they didn’t come back, why? There are two long straights before the village sign, or the relief sign, I can’t describe how good it was to see that Redwick village sign for the last time, no matter what happened in this last 500m I would not need to run past that sign again. I am running fast, garmin would later tell me it was down at the 3:30/km pace, 35 minute 10k pace and Ant is still closing me down, a glance back and I can see the colour of his eyes, this is a fight to the end.  As I see the support team I know there is not enough road left to be caught, I am handed a Saltire and I start to ease off while getting the flag over my head, a last minute panic glance back and I can’t see Ant and I cross the finish line in 7:00:30 to take the British 100km Championships.

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I can’t believe it. Ant crosses the line 7 seconds behind me and we hug, both knowing that we have just ran the hardest race, knowing that we both left everything out there.

Mike finishes third in 7:16 for his first 100km with David 4th and Dave 5th.  When our cumulative times are announced we learn that Scotland also takes the Anglo Celtic Plate home with us.

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It’s already out there in the interwebs, but I feel it is necessary to say that I cannot do this support without the unparalleled support that I get from my family.  There have been some big sacrifices made in order for me to get my 5-6 hour long runs in at the weekend and all the late returns from work as I run home.  I am eternally grateful to have such a supportive family, this simply would not have happened without that.

Second, massive thanks must go to my coach Paul (@pyllon). Yes, I complete the training, but I am a robot, I follow the programming that is input into the robot and that is where the talent is, the programming is the talent and Paul has managed to get more out of this aging body than I thought possible.  It’s only been 7 months.  When he got me, I was pretty unhealthy, a little over weight and doing a bit of running after coming off a long injury lay off.  The longest injury lay off I have had, where I did very little exercise. I am extremely motivated to see where we go in the next 12 months and beyond.

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Lastly, Runderwear.  They pulled out all the stops to source a pair of long boxers for me.  I have been using their brief under tights all winter without issue and tried to buy a long boxer. Sold out everywhere.  A facebook message later and they went above and beyond the call of duty to source a pair for me. They worked a treat and I can report that they do exactly as they claim.  Brilliant under garments, you have a new biggest fan!

 

 

The Road to Durban -Part II

Calling Time on Cross Country

Start of Master's Cross Country 2018 - From Brian Howie

Start of the master’s cross country championships – courtesy of Brian Howie.

After a decent marathon a few weeks ago, I went into the Scottish Masters Cross Country Championships in buoyant mood, thinking I am in half decent shape, not at the top, but getting there.  If the cross country course suits me, I could have a decent run out and I can’t say that for many cross country races I have done over the years.  I have a love hate relationship with cross country.  Essentially, I love it.  It is raw sport.  In Scotland most cross country races are in real fields and more wilder areas than you see around the rest of the world where parkland seems to be the norm.  In Scotland it is rough, sometimes farmland where you are mixing it up where cows or sheep or possible some crops have been for the rest of the year.  This land has usually had the full elements of a Scottish winter applied to it as well, just to add another dimension to how difficult some courses are.  Yesterday was all of that with some ‘obstacles’ thrown in.  For the purists, this was the perfect course, loads of mud, rough, sticky mud, one lad in front of me lost his shoe in the first lap. It had hills, it was on rough farmland, it had fallen trees, tree roots, sharp turns, narrow channels, little sharp inclines.  It was a leg sapping course, probably one of the best ones I have run over.

And I hated every single minute of it.  My frustration at my inability to run on this type of course overflowed yesterday.  Half way into the first short lap (it was one short lap and to long laps that made up the 8k distance) I called time on cross country.  I spent the rest of the race just trying to stay upright, just trying to put one foot in front the other.  I was slipping, sliding and stumbling all over the place, while I watched other seemingly glide through the mud.  Why am I doing this again?  Over the years I can say I’ve had maybe one or two half decent races over the country.  Once at the masters champs in Forres a few years where I was suffering from a virus and still managed a 12th or 13th spot and another at Falkirk nationals in 2009 where I might have finished in the top 70.  Both races were on hard packed, maybe frosty, ground, not too dissimilar to tarmac!  Kilmarnock’s course was the exact opposite, shin deep sludge on winter farmland.  I’ve also been lucky enough to represent my country twice over the cross country for the Scottish Master’s team.  I suspect my selection has been based on road speed than my ability over the country.  Both times have been great experiences despite my poor performances.

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Taking it easier in Dean Park, Kilmarnock – photo taken from Kenny Phillips

After the race, I didn’t wallow in self pity, this is not a self pity blog, this is realism and I was realistic and pragmatic about my next steps:  I was going to put it behind me and get on with training for Comrades, after all, that is the goal for the first half of the year.  Some of my fellow Edinburgh AC lads had great runs, Leon (4th overall) and Chris spring to mind and seemed to enjoy that type of underfoot conditions.  I’m delighted for them, Leon had a great race coming back from a 3 week forced training break due to illness.

When I got back home a looked at my Garmin stats my average HR for the race was 162.  That is low for such a short race, my recent marathon average HR was 164, so it shows the lack of effort in the performance, it should have been in the mid 170’s. Converting that from road paces, I should have been about 30-40 seconds per mile quicker had I got my heart rate up into the mid 170’s.

Speaking about the recent trip down south for the Gloucester marathon.  The idea (if you read my last blog post) was to go down to Gloucester, run a sub 3 and head home.  Most of you will already know that it didn’t quite go as planned.  I felt really good on the day and decided to go out at a comfortable pace.  6 miles went past in 36 minute bang on.  Oops, there goes the plan of a controlled sub 3!  It was a little quicker than I had hoped for, but it was under control.  We hit the first hill and the pace got slowed.  Half way came up at 1:21 and that pace was maintained to the end.  Well nearly the end.  At 24 miles I could see someone closing fast, so I had to dig a little deeper to maintain my pace and was delighted to cross the line first in 2:42.  It was especially pleasing as I could have gotten a few more minutes off that time, if it had been a target race, meaning my fitness is coming back and Paul is slowly getting me into good shape.  There are still 4 months until Comrades, that is a long time in training terms but it means I still have loads more training adaptations to come!

 

The Road to Durban – Part 1

Today is the 13th January 2018 and in 22 weeks I will stick my wee size 8.5s on the start line of, arguably, the world’s biggest and, to some, best ultra marathon.  ‘The Comrades’ this year starts in Pietermaritzburg and proceeds up and down and up and down and down and down again to Durban, some circa 90kms away.  When I think about it, I get a knot in my stomach, like I did just before I got married, or when my kids were born.  Excitement is not a strong enough word,  my anticipation of this race makes me wobble at the knees, which reminds me that I will need to do a lot of work in that area in the next 5 months if my quads are to handle the last, generally, down 40km of the race.  Yes, it’s a “down” year which means there is a net downhill to the race course.  It’s alternated each year with the “up” race which runs in the opposite direction.  You avid ultra runners already know this stuff, right?

I mentioned strength work there, I have joined my new client’s gym and attempted to get back into some gym work last Tuesday.  Just some simple sumo squats with 35kg and pistol squats on the TRX machine.  I was in the gym anyway doing my daily mobility work and thought no time like the present.  Muscles will be stiff for a day or two at the most and I would crack on next week with it.  I was still struggling to get up and down stairs this morning, 4, FOUR, days later.  I am so old.

So, anyway, this is part one of the journey to Durban.  I am on a train somewhere between Penrith and Lancaster as I type this.  I wasn’t going to bother to blog about this, but I am unable to watch my Netflix downloads in the quiet coach without my earphones.  I do have my earphones, but no jack plug adaptor for these new bloody iPhone ear pieces.  Apple, as standard, give you a female jack socket so that you can plug your fancy Dr Dre ear pieces into the iPhone, but don’t give you male adaptor for the Lightening connector so that you can use your Apple phones with other equipment.  You need to buy that of course!  This along with trying to keep my mind off the really obese guy behind me having to use my headrest every time he gets and up and down (which is about every 10 minutes at the moment).  I was almost having a wee nap when my head was pulled back gently and catapulted forward at supersonic speeds as obese guy needed to drain the main vain……again!  There is a lot to be said for first class, but this wasn’t special enough to warrant the additional 200 quid.

“Where are you going?”  Oh, yeah:  I am heading to Gloucester.  Tomorrow is the rescheduled Gloucester half marathon, marathon and 50km.  Comrades has a qualification window regardless of who you are or what you’ve done in the past (I am sure this doesn’t apply to the Elite field).  Each runner is required to run at least a marathon between August 2017 and May 2018 for the 2018 race.  Seeding is based on the time you run on the given distance you choose for qualification.  There are a number of distances that can be used, marathon, 50k, 100k, 100 miles etc.  I have picked the marathon, and picked one early enough in the year so that it is out of the way and I can get back to training on Monday.  I would have gone for one late last year, but I actually don’t think I would have been in shape to run under 3 hours for the marathon.  Let me just say that at 45 year old, lost fitness (due to long term injury) takes an awful long time to come back.  A hell of a lot longer than I remember in my 30’s.  I’ve managed to train regularly since June last year and have been getting help with my training (#teampyllon) since August and I think I am now, just, in the right shape to run a sub 3 marathon. It shouldn’t pose too much of an issue.  It won’t be easy peasy, but it should be comfortable.  I wouldn’t normally toe the line in this current shape for a marathon but I think Paul has me in the right condition to get that qualification time.  There will be no heroics, this is just a train journey down, 2:59, then train back home.  That sub 3 will give me entry into the top tier on the Comrades start line – that is the only goal for tomorrow.

Will Power Isn’t Enough

That’s a negative title for a blog post, NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) proposes to avoid using words like isn’t, not, can’t etc.  I have no experience of NLP, I read an article once and remembered that single point. I suspect the premise is not to use negative words in normal conversation or written word in the hope it promotes positivity.  It probably doesn’t scratch the surface on the subject to be fair.  However, this will be a positive post despite the title as it will delve into my recent chapter of the world of ultra trail running.  

The Devil O’ the Highlands is an iconic 42 mile (6000ft of ascent) Scottish ultra that covers the top ‘half’ of the West Highland Way.  99% off road across some of the more rough sections of the whole 95 mile route with, arguably, the toughest climbs and challenging underfoot conditions.  It is a fantastic race organised by the fantastic John Duncan and team.  His races, which also includes the Highland Fling, have a European feel to them, fabulous finishes, pristine organisation and well supported.  They are probably the best ultra’s in the UK (personal opinion).

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On the start line with Gerry.  Thanks to Graeme at Monument Photos

 Those who know me, will have noticed a severe lack of racing this year.  A groin injury that first appeared at the River Ayr Race last year came to a head in the wonderful Jedburgh 3 Peaks Ultra  (I must go back to that one) last October and that kept me out on the injury bench for around 3 months.  A return in the new year only replaced the groin injury with plantar fasciitis.  Man, that is one tough injury to shift, but shift it I did with the help of Ross from Space Clinics in Edinburgh and Lesley, a podiatrist and old school chum at JW Physiotherapy in South Queensferry and I started my come back, ahem, late April only for a slight relapse and some more down time before getting going in May.  Looking back I had about 10 weeks to get ready for the Devil, from zero!  It was only around 3-4 weeks from the Devil that I started to feel a familiar bounce return to my running, the previous 6 weeks being dogged by severe sluggishness.

Preparation could have been better.  Two weeks in the Majorcan sun, eating my own body weight in food, daily, and consuming gallons of local beer had me return to Edinburgh with a small food baby and the running was very sluggish for a couple of weeks.  In the 10 weeks I had built up my long (**actually laughs out loud**) runs to 16 miles and managed one 18 mile run and two 20 mile runs.  It wasn’t enough, but I thought what the heck, let’s do it anyway, even if I have to walk large sections I will push on to the end.

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Coming into Bridge of Orchy with Davie Gow. Davie goes on to taking 5th place in the race.  Thanks to Graeme from Monument Photos

For most who blog, it will be natural to post when inspired or happy, maybe less so when things are not going so well.  It is how social media works, endless posts of wonderful people having wonderful lives.  It can be difficult for most to admit that they were wrong privately, let alone publicise it.  I’m not immune to that, Mrs T can testify!  The truth is, I shouldn’t have toed the line in this race.  Vastly under trained, hugely under prepared and foolish to think that will power, with a little bit of ego mixed in, would get me to the end.  It didn’t and I bailed out at Kinlochleven, 28 miles into the race.  I had problems on the way there, stomach issues at 15 miles meant I spent 10 minutes in the Glencoe checkpoint toilet, my nutritional, sleep and taper approaches to the race should have been different, but at the end of the day, it came down to bad organisation and nowhere near being race primed!

 It wasn’t all bad.  My kit was superb, I don’t have to say that, the ashmei 2 in 1 shorts, classic short sleeve and socks all performed above and beyond, drying out super quickly when I was slowing down or walking and starting to feel a chill.  The zipped neck of the classic short sleeve was a welcome feature for getting a little air in when I heated up and zipping it up when I didn’t, or being attacked by midges!  A number of people complimented how good the kit looks again, which always makes me smile.  Then there was meeting Norrie, a good runner having similar problems to myself on the day.  The chat with Norrie on the way into Kinlochleven, when we were both questioning our running, our motivations, our training, is partly the catylist for this blog post.  I hope it helped Norrie as it certainly helped me.  Also, the 15 miles or so that I ran with Davie Gow, a really top chap and great runner, who went on to finish 5th.  I admired his race planning the preparation and I piggy backed onto his pacing strategy for those miles.  

After 11-12 years of running (as an adult) I love that I am still a student of the sport, I learned some valuable lessons from those guys, from myself and I suspect that will only continue.

A new chapter to my running is coming.  At 45 years old (well in a few weeks anyway) I feel excited about the future as I hook up with someone who really knows their stuff, has a wealth of experience and who I hope can tease out of me the best my body can provide.

Exciting times ahead.

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Coming over the top of the Devil’s Staircase.  Lastly, a huge thanks to Graeme at Monument Photos

33 Shake (a gel, sort of)

If you take away the beer, wine, crisps, chocolate and cakes, I have a top notch nutritional approach.  Ok, the beer et al are normally a weekend thing, and strictly only when a big race isn’t coming up.  I guess about a 90/10% split.  That’s 90% of ‘good food’ like whole, fresh unprocessed food stuffs and 10% of awesome foods like beer, wine and chocolate.

When a target, A race is in the calendar and the training approach is worked on, the ‘diet’ is utterly dialled in.  It is difficult to be so strict with myself all year and I allow myself the indulgences when I am not targeting any races.  Mostly to the detriment of my waistline. I am one stubborn and determined egg though and I can switch to super strict quicker than Trump can covfefe!

Race nutrition is still an evolving programme for me.  I’ve tried lots of products over the years.  Many gels have been consumed, many have been binned, and many have been stored at the back of the cupboard for many years.  That has just reminded me to go and clear them out!  Race hydration will always be Tailwind, water and flat coke for that final push.  I will never forget just how good water tasted when I was handed it at mile 50 odd in last year’s Anglo Celtic Plate.  A lot of people talk about coconut water’s thirst quenching abilities, but for me it is just H2O, plain and simple.  Sometimes you just can’t get any better.

I’ve not found that right gel yet, or at least not until now.  I have dabbled with making my own food balls and they would be fine if you are racing where drop bags are available or checkpoints but if it is self supported and you have to carry all your food then those home made ‘power’ balls can end up home made ‘power’ crumbs after bobbling about in a race vest.  I took my spirulina balls with me last Monday (29th May 2017) on the run in the Scottish mountains.  Their binding agent is coconut oil, which when cold is solid, but put it in your hands and it quickly becomes liquid.  Well after 3 hours of running, your back gives off a lot of heat and when I took the spirulina balls out of the bag, they reminded me of an ectoplasm residue!  I am still working on the recipe for these, so if anyone out there can provide a stable binding agent, that is whole, unrefined and doesn’t taste like kak, I am all ears.  Maybe I should tweet Trump and ask when he puts in his Barnet?

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The Gel

A few months ago, I had acquired a few chia seed ‘gels’ by a company called 33 Shake.  I’d listened to the company founder, Warren Pole, on the Trail Runner Nation podcast many months ago.  If you haven’t listened to the padcast, go do it, really fun show and they have lots of great guests.  Warren is charismatic guy and, like almost all company founders, believe their products to be the best on the market.  The all natural, mostly organic ingredients list pleased my inner healthy living being.  They come as a dry gel, sounds like an oxymoron, but they are dry ingredients that you have to add some water to.

The Back of the Pack

The ingredients are:

  • Chia seeds
  • Coconut palm sugar
  • Madagascan vanilla
  • Himalayan Pink Salt

The nutritional profile of a single gel pack is

  • Calories – 90
  • Protein – 2.2g
  • Carbs – 11.2g
  • Sugars – 6g
  • Fat – 4g
  • Saturated Fat – 0.4g
  • Fibre – 5g
  • Iron – 1.1mg
  • Sodium – 17.6mg
  • Potassium – 103mg
  • Calcium – 1.1mg

They don’t pack as many calories as some other gels on the market, or indeed a Tailwind stick pack, but I wouldn’t just use these gels, I would always be looking at other products like Tailwind or real food to compliment.  The pink rock salt is a good additive.  Table salt is just sodium chloride, highly refined and virtually no nutritional value.  The Himalayan salt on the other hand also has potassium, magnesium, calcium, oxygen and hydrogen in very small amounts, but not insignificant amounts that may well help you in times of stress i.e. like an ultra marathon.

Usage Instructions

The suggestion on the pack is that you should add water, coconut water or fruit juice (!!!) and do this up to 24 hours prior to using them.  I suppose so that you don’t need to put water in them when you are out on the course.  As it was, I was running with a flask of water in my race vest, so decided to fill the gels on the hoof.  I have to say that was a little fiddly and a little messy.  It didn’t help having the Ultimate Direction bottles.  One squeeze of them and water fires out the spout like a fire hose!!  On future runs, or races, I will definitely be taking the manufacturers advice.  It would also mean they would be ready when you needed them.  Filling them with water as and when you need them, means you have to wait about 10 minutes for the water to be absorbed by the dry contents.  The pack has a tight screw top lid and you need that to enable some vigorous shaking once the chosen liquid is added.  However, when they are ready to be eaten the lid comes off and you are left with an easy ‘spout’ to suck the gel into your mouth.

The Taste

I won’t deny this, I was hesitant to try this gel.  I wanted something sweet and the main content of this gel was going to be chia seeds and water.  I’ve made chia seed slurry as a desert in the past and it is an acquired taste.  The thought of that taste, at that moment in time, brought on a little fear!  As I hiked up the top half of the Devil’s Staircase I got over myself and squeezed the gel into my mouth.  I was hit by this intense sweetness, not an overly sweet taste, like you would get from ‘death by chocolate’ cake, this was pleasant and the consistency was nice.  The overriding flavour is vanilla, which again wasn’t overpowering.   The little chia seeds stuck between my teeth only moved my concentration from the pain of hiking up the Devil’s 1000ft ascent.

Overall

These are very good gels.  Ok they are not, rip it open and consume, but I think the prior arrangement of putting water in them before you head out is minor and won’t stop me using them again in training and racing.  The packaging is completely recyclable as well so there is no need to dump these empty gel packs on the course either!!  You know who you are!  A pack of 10 will cost just under 20 quid, so roughly £2 per gel.  I think you are getting great value for money if you are conscious of what types of food you put in your body.